Solving the Cleveland Indians Defensive Dilemma


The Indians Defensive Woes Continue to Sabotage an Otherwise Talented Team

There’s no denying that the Indians have disappointed with their performance over the first two months of the season. With a record of 21-25 entering their four-game weekend series against the Mariners, they are a long way away from being the World Series contending juggernaut many pundits thought they would be to start the season.

However, their recent performance, wins in nine of their last thirteen games entering Thursday was a good sign that things are about to turn their way. An unsustainable stretch of bad luck to start the season was sure to right itself. More often than not, talent rises to the surface and this team is simply too talented on paper to languish all season long near the bottom of the MLB barrel.

Unfortunately, while the offense has begun to show real signs of life, they’ve posted an OPS+ of 123 in May as opposed to 92 in April, and the pitching has been soul crushing on opposing batters, .242/.296/.415 slash line in May, the defense continues to be an issue. And while it was rational to believe that the offense would eventually wake up and the pitching would be among the best in baseball, defense is a different issue.

Sep 14, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Cleveland Indians center fielder Michael Bourn (24) makes a catch against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Spoiler alert: The defense isn’t just going to improve on its own.

According to Jonah Keri’s quarter season awards article posted on Grantland, the Indians rank 28th in terms of defensive runs saved. This is taking its toll on the starting pitching staff, as evident from the 1.23 difference between their ERA and FIP. In other words, the Indians pitchers are handling the things they control but once the ball gets into play it’s a whole other story. In the simplest of terms, the Indians’ all-time bad defense is just as bad in 2015 as it was in 2014.

Now, as Kari points out, calling up Francisco Lindor to take over the full-time job at shortstop will help. The Indians current group of shortstops currently accounts for -2 defensive runs saved (DRS) and a UZR of -4.0. That translates to a UZR/150 of -16.0. That’s not good, so adding a top rated shortstop with a canon arm and unlimited range should help.

While that is an easy fix, there are other areas where the Indians could improve substantially defensively. However, while first base is currently an issue, -6 DRS and -7.7 UZR. While that’s terrible, the front office is not going to replace Carlos Santana‘s bat and its potential for a defensive upgrade. Te same can be said of Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, or possibly even Lonnie Chisenhall. Their defensive shortcomings can be offset by their offense, or at least that’s the hope (looking at you Chiz).

The heart of any defense is up the middle and over time this has been proven true. The return of Yan Gomes will almost certainly have a ripple effect defensively. Lindor, as mentioned above, serves as an intriguing and simple mid-season option. Even Kipnis has displayed improved defensive prowess, 4 DRS and 2.0 UZR so far in 2015, and is hitting like the all-star we all believed he could be.

Then there is Michael Bourn. His offensive woes have been well documented. part way through year three of a four-year deal has seen the once elite lead-off man moved to the bottom of the order. The dirty secret no one has talked about, other than Kari, is the degradation of his defensive skills. The two-time gold glover is currently responsible for -1 DRS and -3.6 UZR. It’s getting to the point where it’s getting hard to justify playing born for any reason other than his $13.5-million salary; a factor that makes him nearly impossible to trade or DFA.

So how do we go about replacing Bourn and his diminished defensive skills for the betterment of the team as a whole?

The easiest and most realistic options would come internally with two likely candidates. At the triple-A level the Indians have Tyler Holt. In 37 innings in center in 2014, Holt accounted for 2 DRS and flashed some serious leather skills. Offensively, he is still very raw, but showed enough in his limited time to think he could figure things out. .268/.307/.296 in 76 plate appearance in 2014. But who cares about offense when you’re doing things like this in the outfield. Seriously, sign me up for more of this.

Tyler Holt Diving Catch

Tyler Holt Diving Catch

Another internal option is James Ramsey, who the Indians acquired last year from the Cardinals in exchange for Justin Masterson. Ramsey is currently hitting .253/.352/.429 for Columbus with 6 homers and 19 RBI. He has speed and quickness that projects as a top of the order table setter. However, he has yet to make his big league debut so there is still the mystery of the unknown. It’s likely the Indians would prefer him to get more minor league seasoning before making the jump to the bigs.

Tyler Naquin is another intriguing minor league option. However, Naquin is even further off than Ramsey. Currently in Double-A Akron, Naquin has posted a very remarkable .291/.388/.379 slash line. Defensively, he has been the Rubber Ducks every day center fielder. Naquin was the Tribe’s first round pick in 2012 and has progressed better than most expected. In terms of talent, he may be the best of the three internal options, but is probably the least likely to get a chance given he has yet to make even his Triple-A debut.

Externally, things are a little bit trickier. In order for the Indians to acquire even a serviceable center field option, they would more than likely be forced to part with a significant piece. Another team is not simply going to take Michael Bourn off our hands. It just doesn’t work that way. There is also the problem of finding the player with the right fit.

Apr 6, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Ender Inciarte against the San Francisco Giants during opening day at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The best option for improving the Indians’ center field defense via trade could be the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Ender Inciarte. The D-Backs outfield has gotten somewhat crowded. The emergence of Mark Trumbo‘s power, David Peralta‘s potential, and A.J. Pollack as an OBP and run scoring beast has made Inciarte expendable. He’s having a solid season, .295/.321/.377 and, more importantly, boasts a career 14 DRS and 13.1 UZR/150. Unfortunately, the price to acquire Enciarte may be higher than what the Indians want to pay.

Another external option, via trade could be Kansas City’s Jarrod Dyson. For his career, Dyson has accumulated 33 DRS and 21.3 UZR/150 as a center fielder. Offensively he leaves something to be desired, a career .253/.317/.332 slash line, but once he gets on base the fun really starts. Dyson was a difference maker for the Royals in the 2014 postseason stealing bases. He could probably be had for relatively cheap too. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely the Royals would be willing to make a trade midseason to improve a division foe unless they were getting back something of significant value back in return.

So as you can see, there are options available to the Indians in order to help improve their defensive issues. Whether or not they take the proper steps to rectify the situation remains to be seen. Based on their track record, it seems far more likely that the Indians will remain with the status quo in the hopes that Micheal Bourn is able to turn things around in center field. And while that appears less and less likely to happen with each and every passing day, you have to admire their commitment to their guys. Let’s just hope we don’t look back on this season and wonder what might have been if only the Indians had made a move.